Big Picture - Big Issues

Women and Livestock

Woman with leaves and goat

Livestock are important to small farmers all over the world, but they are particularly important to women from subsistence farming families in the poorest countries of the developing world.

Even though women do a lot of the farm work in Africa and Asia, they often have little control over what is produced, or the profits from that production. With livestock it is a different story. At least two thirds of the poor livestock keepers in the world are rural women. They often own small livestock – poultry, goats and pigs – and even if they don't own cows, as the people in charge of milking and processing, they often have control over the consumption of milk and the use of the profits from dairying.

For Veterinarians without Borders, these special circumstances mean that women are an important focus for livestock programming. By ensuring that women have access to livestock and training, VWB/ VSF can ensure better nutrition for the entire family as well as income that will be used for household needs such as clothing, health care, and school fees. As well, women have been engaged as group leaders and local educators and trained as Community Animal Health Workers (CAHW), providing a new source of family income, and a place of respect within the community.

Where there is no Veterinarian

Community animal health workers (CAHWS) have become an important element of VWB/VSF's approach to development. Members of VSF International have developed decades of expertise in CAHW training models, embracing the practical notion that local people with an aptitude for animal care can be empowered to perform many basic veterinary tasks, dramatically improving animal health in their villages and regions.

Community animal health workers

In many of the countries where VWB/VSF works there are few veterinarians and most of those are government employees working at a policy or supervisory level. Even if more vets were available, most small farmers would not be able to afford their services. CAHWs fill the gap, serving the needs of small livestock owners at an affordable price, while providing a good livelihood for the CAHWs. VWB/VSF has developed an effective training program based on a curriculum developed by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. VWB/VSF tries to ensure that CAHWs have the support of veterinarians, often by cell phone, to provide diagnostic assistance and advice. Government veterinarians have learned that the value flows both ways. CAHWs are their eyes and ears in the field – the first to notice the emergence of new diseases, or spot an outbreak in time to prevent a full epidemic. Another important factor in CAHW success is ensuring that they have appropriate, properly refrigerated medicines, vaccines, and supplies. That need is filled through the creation of rural drug vendors and, in some cases, regional animal health centres.


Among zoonotic diseases, rabies is very much a known quantity. It is preventable – a vaccine has been available for more than 100 years (CDC) – and it is curable with timely post-exposure treatment, yet in the developing world it continues to be a serious threat to human life. Estimates put the death toll at 70,000 people each year, nearly all in the developing countries of Africa and Asia. Children are disproportionately affected – more than 60 per cent of the deaths are in children under 15 years of age and 99 per cent of the deaths are the result of dog bites.

Rabies clinic

VWB/VSF has been working on this challenge since it was founded. Volunteers have been working with VWB/VSF on rabies prevention in Latin America since 2005, but it is increasingly difficult to fund those missions and VWB/VSF has recently transferred its rabies work in Latin America to the Global Alliance for Animals and People. VWB/VSF has built rabies prevention clinics into other projects – the effort in Laos and Cambodia is a good example where over 5,000 dogs and cats have been vaccinated in the last five years. In South Sudan, VWB/VSF's Community Animal Health Workers saw that people were being infected from the more than 50,000 dogs in Maban County. VWB/VSF was able to scrape together money to run a small campaign to vaccinate 400 animals – a good start, but not nearly enough to reach the level of herd immunity necessary to eliminate the threat.

For VWB/VSF, any focus on zoonotic diseases in the tropics must necessarily include attention to rabies. And while finding resources for rabies prevention may be a challenge, the disease will continue to be on VWB/VSF's radar as it expands its efforts around the world.


From the beginning, VWB/VSF has been careful to keep an eye on The Big Picture in designing and implementing projects around the world. That Big Picture is best defined by the concept of Ecohealth, which suggests that people and animals can only be healthy if the environment they live in is healthy. That means that the air and water need to be clean, that the soil is healthy enough to support the plants that, in turn, support human and animal life, and that animals, both wild and domestic are healthy, are available as a source of food, and are not transmitting diseases to humans.

What sets the Ecohealth approach apart from earlier ecological thinking is that it puts humans squarely in the middle of the frame. It is based on natural sciences, but it also takes human behaviour into account, and ensures that people and communities are involved in the decisions that affect their health and environment. The animals that are the focus of VWB/VSF's work bring value to humans as a source of food, income, traction, and companionship, but they are both affected by, and affect the environment in which they exist. They are part of a delicate balance that includes soil, water, topography, population density, markets, culture, and tradition. 


Ecohealth Trainer ManualField Building Leadership InitiativeView the Manual

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